written by Mary Brennan Thorpe
Image of the Hebrew Alphabet courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Psalm 119, verses 49-72
49 Remember your word to your servant, because you have given me hope.
50 This is my comfort in my trouble, that your promise gives me life.
51 The proud have derided me cruelly, but I have not turned from your law.
52 When I remember your judgments of old, O Lord, I take great comfort.
53 I am filled with a burning rage, because of the wicked who forsake your law.
54 Your statutes have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger.
55 I remember your Name in the night, O Lord, and dwell upon your law.
56 This is how it has been with me, because I have kept your commandments.
57 You only are my portion, O Lord; I have promised to keep your words.
58 I entreat you with all my heart, be merciful to me according to your promise.
59 I have considered my ways and turned my feet toward your decrees.
60 I hasten and do not tarry to keep your commandments.
61 Though the cords of the wicked entangle me, I do not forget your law.
62 At midnight I will rise to give you thanks, because of your righteous judgments.
63 I am a companion of all who fear you and of those who keep your commandments.
64 The earth, O Lord, is full of your love; instruct me in your statutes.
65 O Lord, you have dealt graciously with your servant, according to your word.
66 Teach me discernment and knowledge, for I have believed in your commandments.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.
68 You are good and you bring forth good; instruct me in your statutes.
69 The proud have smeared me with lies, but I will keep your commandments with my whole heart.
70 Their heart is gross and fat, but my delight is in your law.
71 It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
72 The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver.
Acrostics! When you were a child, you might have written a Mother’s Day card to your mom using and acrostic: each letter of the word “MOTHER” assigned to a word or phrase that you thought represented your mother. I might have done something like “M is for Marlboros, because you smoke them all the time. O is for oranges, our favorite fruit. T is for tasty, like the meals you make us”…and so on. Acrostics are an ancient form of wordplay, and we can have fun with them, but there’s also something so very interesting in seeing an acrostic used in Scripture. That’s what we see in the psalm appointed for today, an excerpt from Psalm119.
The Hebrew Bible scholar Robert Alter calls this acrostic psalm an “extravagant mnemonic” that is intended to teach The Way, in this, “the longest psalm” in the book, and “the longest chapter in the Hebrew Bible.” Twenty-two Hebrew letters, each preceding eight lines of poetry, and the first letter of each section of poetry begins with the next letter.
The good news, for a whole variety of reasons, is that the passage for today is a small section of that huge psalm. Just three sequences, each entitled with its requisite acrostic letter: Zayin(ד), Heth (ח), and Teth (ט). Twenty-four verses. What can we get to carry us in this complicated time in those twenty-four verses?
We are in need of hope and comfort and clarity. And we get it:
This is my comfort in my trouble, that your promise gives me life. (vs. 50)
O Lord, you have dealt graciously with your servant, according to your word. (vs. 65)
The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver. (vs. 72)
In other words, God is the source of life, God has been a source of goodness, God’s providence outstrips earthly and material things.
Hope, comfort and clarity. You can’t get much clearer than that.
This snippet from the psalm is like so many of the psalms: there is no denial that life is full of affliction, of surprising gifts, of a sense of questioning what is really important. There is struggle and pain, but there is that continual turning back toward God who is the source of life. Turning back as if we are turning back toward our earthly mothers, the source of our life, whether that source was their own bodies or simply their hearts. Knowing that we are continually reminded in these trying days that much of what we have learned from those who fulfilled a maternal role of some sort in our lives, that sometimes we are faced with difficult things, that there are those around us who can help us, and that doing things in accordance with divine teachings is a way that we help others as well as ourselves.
God’s people get themselves in trouble when they forget these three teachings. When they seek fulfillment in their own desires rather than considering the common good (complaining about having to wear masks at Costco, anyone?) When they complain that good people are getting sick and dying, rather than bad people, even though it is an eternal verity that we all go down to the grave eventually. When they think that Dr. Fauci, or President Trump, or the company that manufactures a particular medicine might be God. None of them are God.
God is God.
God says God’s way is the way of truth and love. It requires humility – no, you are NOT God! It requires admitting that we are imperfect but there is a path toward greater holiness. It requires an understanding that the whole of God’s creation is an interdependent system of remarkable beauty and mind-boggling complexity. It requires seeking out, each and every day, deeper knowledge of God and service to God…which also means service to the rest of God’s creation.
Mom taught you this, that God’s message is clear AND it is do-able, no matter your age. Love each other (even if you hate to wear masks or to stay at home) because loving each other is a sign that you love God. Pray, for those you love and for those you can’t stand and for those you don’t know, because they are God’s children as you are. Know that God loves you and walks with you, because it’s like your mother: no matter how old you get, you’ll always be her beloved child.
It’s not all that complicated, but if you want a bit of whimsy to unpack your theological reflection, I’m your gal. Herewith, an acrostic for mothers and for mothers’ children, in this season of COVID-19:
M is for making space, as a gift to those who need the safety of space to be safe;
O is for openness to new possibilities even though they might make us uncomfortable;
T is for taking stock and examining my own behavior and motivations and how they align (or not) with God’s teachings;
H is for helping, because in tough times there are a number of ways we can help, even if we cannot physically interact;
E is for expending energy on the things that are really important (God’s teachings and how we live into them daily) and for NOT expending energy on things that are beyond our control (why my neighbor is out on her riding mower right next store while I’m trying to participate in a Zoom conference gathering.)
R is for resurrection; your mom may have reminded you that tomorrow is another day, and another opportunity to do something good, to fix something that needs attention, to give joy. God said it first, though.
In honor of our mothering God, in honor of mothers who look like Betty Crocker or who look like Nadia Bolz-Weber or who look like grandmothers or who look like dads, in honor of the spirit of Wisdom, Sophia, who is always nudging us forward even in the toughest times, in honor of the Psalmist who embraces the fullness of the human experience, we offer thanks! (You will be relieved to hear that there will be no acrostic for “thanks.”)
The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe is Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Virginia. When not pondering acrostics, she sews masks, cooks new recipes, plays guitar badly, and does the things she promised in her ordination vows (mostly) not badly. Her book “On the Emmaus Road: A Guide to Transitions in Ordained Leadership” will be published by Church Publishing in late fall, 2020.